It’s become a commonplace (how do things become commonplaces so quickly?) that in time of quarantine, the days flow into each other, and it’s hard to feel that anything’s really been accomplished when everything looks so much the same. Well, I have a real accomplishment: during this incredibly weird semester, a friend and colleague of mine pulled together a small reading group, and we traveled through Ulysses together.
I didn’t know much about it before I started, except that it took place in Dublin. If you don’t know much about it, either, a very sketchy outline of it is that it traces one (very) full day in the lives of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, as they go about their business in the small-but-overflowing city of Dublin on June 16, 1904.
It isn’t… exactly… a novel. T.S. Eliot said it was a reclamation of the epic, and that might be as close as I’d come to describing it. It was serialized when it came out, from 1918-1920, in an American journal, and then Sylvia Beach published it in its entirety in 1922. Our group read it as if it were serialized, one chapter a week, and I would really recommend that way of approaching it. I don’t know many people who could digest it in a lump. Eliot, maybe.
Here’s what I was expecting: it’s dazzling. It’s highly allusive, from the structure itself, which draws on the Odyssey, to motifs and through-lines about Shakespeare and Irish revolution and Catholic faith, to sentence-level allusions to pop culture and trashy songs and puns and advertisements, most of which certainly passed me by. It’s technically and formally stunning, and I loved reading it.
Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: it’s funny. There are moments of pathos and tenderness, and there are dirty jokes. It’s incredibly, scandalously physical — if you’re a person who’s ever watched a TV show and thought, these people have gone four days and never visited the bathroom, let me tell you, this book is for you. It addresses anti-Semitism and poverty and sexuality and jealousy and ambition and childbirth and death and hunger and faith and nationalism and a thousand other human things. Within the formal novelty, within the dazzle of the wordplay, there is a high boil of human life at work.
I really, really enjoyed reading the entire work — there are far too many pieces of it for me to pull out and look at here. (I probably should have blogged about it as I read it; that would have been a fun project, but most likely lots of people have done that before me, and better than I could have done it.) Each chapter is different from the next (which is why it works so well as a serial) : there’s one written with motifs of music, one written as a play script, one that’s full of journalistic headlines, one that’s question and answer like a catechism. But two things especially stand out to me. There’s a chapter in which Bloom and Stephen and a lot of other guys are drinking together, and Bloom is worrying about a woman in childbirth he’d heard about earlier in the book. The entire chapter, stylistically, is written as the history of the English language: it starts with latinate words, then Anglo-Saxon alliteration, then parodies of Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, and far more — all the way up to an almost incomprehensibly garbled international slang that signals the twentieth century. It’s just amazing, it’s a tour de force. Not only is it an absolute joy to read (and I’m certain I missed a third or more of the allusions), it’s deeper than it looks: the gestation of the language is linked to the gestation of the child and of the Irish people, through-lines that are woven into the entire book. It’s genius.
The last chapter, maybe one you’ve seen or read before, is in Molly Bloom’s voice. By the time we finally arrive at the end, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Molly, and hearing other people’s opinions about her, but this is the first time we’ve heard anything she had to say. The chapter has next to no punctuation and is a better representation of stream-of-consciousness writing than almost anything I’ve seen before. The thing that really stands out, though, is the warm humanity of her mind. She isn’t a token woman, she isn’t a two-dimensional wish-fulfillment. I’m not saying this well, but after an extremely long novel, it is so refreshing to be with Molly Bloom, falling asleep after a long day, thinking her own personal thoughts.
I don’t know how many of you have read this, or want to, but it was absolutely wonderful. Challenging sometimes, but not a chore to read at all. I really recommend reading it with a group if you can; my experience with faculty and students was so helpful, because often other people caught things I missed. (I think you’d have to read this several times to begin to catch details.) What I’ve written here is a tiny blep of a review, hardly anything at all, but if you’ve ever wondered about this book — keep it on your list for someday, or now.